Wonderland Podcast with Steven Johnson: Episode 2

32 Dots Per Spaceship

Or, the video game that changed tech history

10 min read

A look back at the origins of Spacewar!, the first video game and one of the most influential pieces of software ever written. With special guests Stewart Brand and Spacewar! creator Steve Russell.

Read Steven Johnson’s background for Episode 2.

Hosted by Steven Johnson
Produced by Kristen Taylor
Audio engineering & music editing by Jason Oberholtzer
Theme music by Steven Johnson

Listen to the previous episode: Babbage and the Dancer (Or, Can You Fall in Love With a Robot?)
Listen to the next episode: “
Strange Loops and Circuit Benders (Or, How New Music Comes from Broken Machines)

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STEVE RUSSELL: I’m just going over to turn on the lights.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Oh yeah, great.

It’s 1979 and I’m 11. Up until this point, I had played rudimentary video games like Pong, but they didn’t really capture my imagination. I mean Pong was just two rectangles, batting a square back and forth. But then a local pizza parlor in our neighborhood got a new game. Asteroids. The graphics were still black-and-white, but they actually resembled the objects they were trying to simulate. You had a little spaceship that you controlled, and you swerved around these lumbering asteroids, and every now and then a little alien spaceship arrived and started firing at you. The game even had a convincing physics to it. If you accelerated your spaceship it would drift across the screen, sometimes uncontrollably. The whole experience was magic. Now, of course, when I show it to my kids today, they just gave me a sad, patronizing look like I grew up in the Dark Ages. Now, I didn’t realize it at the time, but Asteroids was the direct descendant of the first original videogame ever created. Spacewar!.

In 1961, three grad students at MIT had gotten word that their department was going to be installing one of the most advanced computers ever built, the PDP1 from Digital Equipment Corp. They called it a mini-computer, which seems like a joke to us today because this thing was the size of an armoire, and as you can imagine, the grad students were thrilled at the prospect of all this incredible computing power, so they started to think about what their first programs should be. In the end, they decided to take this million-dollar machine and use it to play a primitive video game called Spacewar!. Now, this may seem like a colossal waste of resources, like hiring a symphony to play “Chopsticks,” but Spacewar! turned out to be one of the most important pieces of software ever written.

I’m Steven Johnson. This is “Wonderland.” “Wonderland” is brought to you by Microsoft, and also by Riverhead Books, publisher of my new book, Wonderland, How Play Made the Modern World.

STEVE RUSSELL: Very few people understand how spaceships work.

STEVEN JOHNSON: We don’t have to make this about my poor play, it’s Spacewar!“¦

STEVE RUSSELL: But, but no, that’s typical. People think that spaceships sort of fly like airplanes, but they don’t.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That’s Spacewar! creator Steve Russell. He was one of those grad students at MIT 55 years ago, trying to figure out how to showcase the power of the PDP1.

STEVE RUSSELL: “¦here are your controls. You control”¦

CLAY JOHNSON: I don’t see anything. Did I crash?

STEVEN JOHNSON: And that is the voice of a true expert in modern video games. My 14-year-old son Clay.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Okay, here we go. There we go. Two spaceships. Oh yeah. I can turn mine”¦

STEVE RUSSELL: OK. You’ve got rotate, which turns the”¦

STEVEN JOHNSON: Yeah, practice rotating first.

We’ve made a pilgrimage down to the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley because, among other attractions, they have a working PDP1 on display there. And even better, you can play Spacewar! on it. And best of all, Steve Russell can give you a live tutorial.

CLAY JOHNSON: Where’d my hyper beam go?

STEVE RUSSELL: The winning thing to do is get yourself into a stable orbit. I feel rather proud of these graphics, even though it’s 32 dots per spaceship.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Now, what made the PDP1 so special at the time was the fact that it was one of the first machines to have a graphical display. It didn’t just communicate via punch cards or teletype. It used images on a screen. Russell and his roommates decided that the killer demo for the PDP1 should be a kind of training program for space travel, which quickly took the form of a two player game, each player controlling a small ship on the screen and firing torpedoes at the other. It was one of the first video games ever created. All those hours you’ve spent crushing candy, or building SimCities, or playing Madden, they all date back to Steve Russell and his friends deciding that the best way to showcase their new hardware was with a game.

STEVEN JOHNSON: What’s that thing in the middle Steve?

STEVE RUSSELL: That’s the star.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Oh, and so if you crash into the star, you die. Oh, there I go. Oh, you’ve just shot me. You shot me.

STEVE RUSSELL: It was clearly easy to make it a two person game. In fact, it was easier to make it a two person game than to make it an automatic opponent. Dan Edwards figured out how to speed it up, speed up the display enough, so that you could actually have time, time to calculate the gravitational effect by the sun in the center of the screen on the spaceships.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That’s amazing.

STEVE RUSSELL: And you have learned something about flying a spaceship today.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Now, you might expect that this is a story about the birth of the video game industry, which of course it partially is. I mean games are now a huge part of the way we entertain ourselves, from the Xbox to Pokémon Go, and it’s interesting to go back and discover the roots of any form of entertainment. But the story of Spacewar! has a surprising twist. It didn’t just lay the groundwork for a new entertainment business. It also helped trigger a seismic shift in the culture.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: In our world, the speed and tempo of modern living are increasing at an ever-accelerating rate. Without organization, without system, the result would be chaos. Our control over a bewildering environment has been facilitated by new techniques of handling vast amounts of data at incredible speeds. The tool which has made this possible is the high-speed digital computer, operating with electronic precision on great quantities of information.

STEVEN JOHNSON: To understand Spacewar!‘s influence, you have to remember what the technology world was like in the 60s. Computers, in a word, were for squares. They didn’t seem to have anything to do with all the other revolutionary movements that defined the 60s. The sex, drugs, and rock and roll, the political protests, the whole countercultural scene. Computers belonged to the Man, to big business, to the military. It had nothing to do with ordinary people and they certainly had nothing to do with the hippies of the Summer of Love. But Spacewar! opened up a link between those two worlds. Playing the game was a little like pressing the hyperspace button. You could get teleported from the bureaucratic world of big business into a completely different space.

To understand the true impact of Spacewar!, I’ve come to one of the most iconic sites from the 60s counterculture, the famous houseboats of Sausalito, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve come to spend some time with Stewart Brand, who has lived on a houseboat here, on and off, for almost half a century. Stewart has been involved in so many of the defining cultural events and institutions that came out of the Bay Area during that time, from the legendary Trips Festival in 1966, to the Whole Earth Catalog, to the first online community, The Well. Stewart actually came up with the term “personal computer,” and he was one of the very first people to grasp the whole idea that computers could be a democratizing force. That they didn’t just belong to bureaucracies or the military. And Stewart got that idea from watching people play Spacewar!.

STEWART BRAND: What I have is the memory of the memory, at this point, but the story is that in 63 or so after I got out of the army, I went back to Stanford where I graduated in 60, and for some reason was getting a tour of the computation center, and the tour involved going into the back room where I was hearing these gleeful screams, which you don’t usually, you know, hear in such places, and there were a couple of people playing what turned out to be Spacewar!. I’d never seen that kind of excitement from people sitting down. You know, I had experience with psychedelic drugs by then, and it looked like they were having a psychedelic high. Out of their bodies, carrying on, and lost, you know, lost to this world and into their game world, and there for a while. Clearly this was not like a five-minute thing. They were, they were gone.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Spacewar! had traveled from MIT all the way to Stanford and to other computer labs around the country because a whole generation of computer pioneers had discovered, for the first time, how mesmerizing it was to manipulate virtual objects on a screen. I couldn’t help thinking about this, playing the game with my son. I mean we’re both accustomed to the most advanced graphics of modern day consoles, and yet we were completely entertained by the simplest images you could imagine.

STEVEN JOHNSON: You can go back and look at images of what the game looked like, particularly then. I mean, you know, I was kind of describing it, it’s like you were controlling two semicolons, and you’re firing like a comma at something else.

STEWART BRAND: Rudimentary graphics are just fine so long as they respond instantly to input from the player.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Spacewar! tapped something deep in the human brain’s attentional system. What Stewart was seeing there, at the AI lab at Stanford, is now an accepted idea in society. But at the time it was a revelation. Those Spacewar! players were sensing, for the first time, how the combination of a digital computer and an interactive screen could conjure up an entire world, a creative, playful space, a space you wanted to explore.

STEWART BRAND: With play it’s really easy to change the rules. That’s, in a way, the most important thing about it. So long as it has rules, and everybody has to sort of agree on what the rules are, but part of the fun, and especially kids have this relationship to games, part of the fun is changing the rules and improving the rules.

STEVEN JOHNSON: As Spacewar! traveled from lab to lab over the course of the 60s, new rules and conventions were added to the game, all for the fun of it. Spacewar! fans created control mechanisms, anticipating modern joysticks and game controllers. New graphics routines, many of them focused on the explosions, made the game more lifelike. An MIT programmer wrote a program, memorably dubbed “expensive planetarium,” that filled the Spacewar! screen with an accurate representation of the night sky. It was one of the first times that a computer graphics program had modeled a real-world environment. Anytime today that you use a mouse to click around on a graphic interface, or use open source software, or navigate digital maps of real world spaces, you’re relying on innovations that Spacewar! helped usher into the world.

STEWART BRAND: People would introduce pretty complex things, like they would wire up the chairs that the players were seated in so that when your spaceship got destroyed, you got an electric zap.

STEVEN JOHNSON: It was a kind of haptic feedback. Basically they have those in the controllers now.

STEWART BRAND: They invented body-scale haptic feedback. They also invented an interesting thing that was desperately unpopular, which was the torpedo firing, they thought it was unrealistic that they always went where they were aimed. Some guy introduced a bit of fuzz into that so that they might miss, you know, even though you’d aimed perfectly, which was real world-based, and easily simulated in the computer. People hated that. They hated it, and it went no further than the first attempts to to do it. People always want the best weapons they can possibly have.

STEVEN JOHNSON: By the early ’70s, Spacewar! had a passionate following among the early computer hacker population, a game that no one owned, that had been collectively authored by hundreds of programmers over the preceding decade. And that is where Stewart Brand becomes central to the story.

STEWART BRAND: When I stopped the Whole Earth Catalog in 1971, 72, I wound up getting invited by Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone, to write something for them, now that I was free. So I said I wanted to write about computers, and what was going on with these games and stuff, and he said, “What is going on?” “I don’t know, I’ll find out.”

STEVEN JOHNSON: As part of his article, Stewart helped organize the first ever Intergalactic Spacewar! Olympics at Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab.

STEWART BRAND: I organized the Galactic Spacewar! Olympics as a way to feature this five-player version of Spacewar! that was going on at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, and I thought, you know, if we’re going to have the photographer Annie Liebowitz come down and photograph stuff, let’s have something worth photographing.

STEVEN JOHNSON: At the end of 1972, he published his Rolling Stone piece with a great New Journalism title: “Spacewar!: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bombs.”

STEWART BRAND: Well, the opening line of the article was, “Ready or not: computers are coming to the people.” And the second line was, “That’s the best news since psychedelics”. The ready or not angle was just acknowledging that people had thought that computers were this deeply bureaucratic, insanely expensive tool that only huge institutions could deploy, and what I was seeing with Spacewar!, with the hackers, is that there was a democratization of access that was coming to these computers even if they lived on the mainframes, and now of course it’s the web that has that quality.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That essay is one of the all-time classics in the history of tech writing. In the end, it was almost as influential as Spacewar! itself. Observing the psychedelic high of people playing a game on a computer screen, Stewart saw what he called a, quote, “Flawless crystal ball of things to come in computer science and computer use.” The game players tinkering with the rules to their sci-fi fantasy world? They weren’t just freaks and geeks. They offered a glimpse of what mainstream society would be doing in two decades, and this is what play often gives us, a sneak peek at upcoming transformations, camouflaged as time wasters or trivial pursuits. Watch your kids playing Minecraft or Pokémon Go today, and you’ll see the seedlings of some equivalent revolution 10 or 20 years from now.

In the end, Stewart Brand was right about computers coming to the people, though even he might’ve been surprised at how quickly that forecast came true. As Spacewar! grew in popularity, Steve Russell moved to Seattle after his tenure at MIT, and mentored a brilliant teenager with a passion for computers, named Bill Gates. Meanwhile, back in the Bay Area, right around the time of the Spacewar! Olympics, the video game company Atari was founded with the aim of creating a commercial version of Spacewar!. Seven years later, they shipped that arcade version of Asteroids that so captivated me as an 11-year-old. Inspired by Stewart Brand’s Rolling Stone essay, another young hippie from the Bay Area started working for Atari and then, shortly thereafter, left to found a company devoted exclusively to making personal computers. His name was Steve Jobs.



Listen to the previous episode: Babbage and the Dancer (Or, Can You Fall in Love With a Robot?)
Listen to the next episode: “
Strange Loops and Circuit Benders (Or, How New Music Comes from Broken Machines)

The logo for the Wonderland Podcast with Steven Johnson

How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. Wonderland is a ten-part podcast series from Steven Johnson about the past and future of play and innovation. Featuring conversations about creativity and invention with leading contemporary scientists, programmers, musicians, and more, the show is brought to you by Microsoft, and by Riverhead Books.

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